U.S. religious freedom is being eroded, advocates say
Misconceptions and ignorance are weakening the Constitution's 'first freedom.'
They are heroes in a battle most Americans think has already been won. On Wednesday evening, they are to be honored for their contributions to strengthening religious freedom at home and abroad.Skip to next paragraph
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Although the US is home to the greatest experiment in religious freedom ever, and the great majority of Americans support that principle, surprising gaps in knowledge and understanding remain when it comes to practicing that freedom. And support for it seems to rise and fall.
Only a slim majority (56 percent) of Americans said in a 2007 survey that freedom of worship should extend to people of all religious groups, no matter what their beliefs (down 16 points, from 72 percent in 2000).
"A great many Americans don't define religious liberty as a universal right for everyone," says Charles Haynes, one of the honorees. He is senior scholar at Freedom Forum's First Amendment Center, which conducted the survey.
At the same time, others see a weakening in federal courts in recent years of the First Amendment provisions relating to religion, a development that could endanger the rights of minority faiths.
Freedom weaker, now
"It's a disquieting fact that the First Amendment clauses are now very weak provisions, not giving the robust protection ... that historically and for much of the 20th century they did provide," says John Witte, professor of law and religion at Emory University in Atlanta and another of the honorees.
In an era when the US is promoting democracy and freedom of conscience around the world, such knowledgeable people say, it's crucial to get the experiment right here at home.
One organization seeking to boost understanding and respect for this fundamental freedom is the Council for America's First Freedom, based in Richmond, Va. The council sponsors a variety of public education programs, including a nationwide high-school essay competition.
And each year on Jan. 16 – the date in 1786 when Virginia passed the nation's first law guaranteeing religious liberty – the council hands out First Freedom Awards to individuals whose actions have made a significant difference. The three 2008 recipients have advanced religious freedom domestically and internationally:
• For two decades, Dr. Haynes of the First Amendment Center has helped local school districts and communities across the US find common ground to resolve conflicts over religion and values. He recently helped the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe draft guidelines for the study of religions in European classrooms.
• Mr. Witte, director of Emory University's Center for the Study of Law and Religion, has led major global projects related to religion and human rights among scholars from the major faiths; the projects have broken new ground on key issues.